Considering Candace Rutherford’s role at Brightmark, it’s ironic that she considers her career to have come full circle since starting in the plastics recycling industry two decades ago. But that’s exactly how she describes it when discussing her career.
“When I started working for one of the largest plastic scrap recycling companies in the country, I was always on the hunt for waste we could recycle,” says Rutherford. “As I grew and followed the trends in plastic recycling and had long-term careers with each company I worked for, I’m back where I started, albeit with Brightmark now, doing work that I know can make a difference.”
Even though she went to school to be a journalist, Rutherford stumbled into the sustainability business through a few different avenues that set her up to be successful in this line of work, ultimately harking back to her upbringing.
After graduating from Western Kentucky University with a degree in public relations, Candace got a job at a local newspaper in the promotions and researching department, something she quickly learned she had a knack for. The goal of a newspaper is to share the truth through storytelling, and she was drawn to ensure that the information she found was accurate.
She met her current husband, Chris, while working at an environmental engineering firm. Candace worked in the marketing department, and Chris was a geologist. Their biggest client was a secondary led smelter. That company hired Chris to work in-house and Candace to do research. Together, they moved to Alabama. This was when Candace started to get interested in environmental issues due to the amount of coverage around asbestos and underground storage tanks.
“I was asked to conduct a study on the feasibility of plastic recycling in the United States because there wasn’t much of a market for high-density polyethylene beyond the West Coast,” says Rutherford. “It was at that point I realized the opportunity to develop and capture this waste was wide open.”
The sister company of the secondary lead smelter was exploring the feasibility of recycling post-consumer bottles. They were already recycling #5 plastic from battery cases. It was circularity before it took off and was done due to its practicality. It just made sense. Candace worked for this company for five years before taking the next step in her career.
“I was buying raw material from a company that was doing post-industrial recycling, and this was a lot cleaner since it dealt with higher engineering grades that went back into cars,” says Rutherford. “Car manufacturers were starting to use recycled content due to cost savings, and since recycled material typically came in black, it was ideal for under-the-hood parts.”
Whether purposefully or not, Candace found herself working at the forefront of plastic recycling over the course of her career, working for two of the largest companies in the industry. As the plastics industry matured, she started looking for new developments and technologies. Candace struck out on her own as a consultant to see where the next iteration of her career would take her.
Candace found herself looking at what could be the next big thing in recycling, this time doing work with Brightmark that was once only considered to be buzzwords—”circularity” and “sustainability.”
Recycling, it seems, is a common thread that weaves its way through the work her family does. Her husband’s side of the family worked in metal and paper recycling, and her son designs engineering lines for metal recyclers. Her daughter, a CPA, is the outlier but wants to get into the recycling industry at some point.
With the ability to lean on decades of experience, Candace started doing consulting work with Brightmark to identify plastic supplies for their pyrolysis process. She developed a proposal based on plastic she saw getting turned away (due to contamination and having too many other types of materials to separate).
“Brightmark can recycle plastics that didn’t have a domestic market until now,” says Candace. “We [the United States] used to ship all of this to China before they stopped taking it in 2017, so lanes opened up for companies like Brightmark to step in and present an innovative outlet for landfill-bound plastics.”
Candace spends most of her time at Brightmark, meeting with power players in the industry and establishing relationships with state recycling coalitions to educate them on what Brightmark can recycle. With the industry pivoting back to landfilling plastic waste due to the ban on exports to China, there is more opportunity for Brightmark to make a significant difference—recycling plastic waste that would otherwise be landfilled or incinerated.
“The country is full of entrepreneurs who will, no doubt, help us get to our goal of removing plastic waste from the environment,” says Candace. “Now that people are beginning to understand the scourge of plastic waste, I think there is more motivation than ever to find ways to reimagine this waste.”
When she’s not helping Brightmark move forward with its mission to Reimagine Waste, you can find Candace attending concerts or assisting in rock digs with her husband. She also devotes her time to non-profits and plays the guitar on the side.
“I feel like my career has come full circle since I began it by looking for the right plastic type to recycle,” says Candace. “Now I spend my days doing the same thing, albeit with the backing of a company that is truly going to revolutionize how we view and manage plastic waste.”